The Art of Diplomacy
Last month I attended a toast/roast for my dad who will be 88 at the end of this month. Although his hearing has diminished, his mind is still very sharp, so my two brothers and I thought that it would be nice to gather a group together to tell a few stories about him. My dad loves a good laugh. He has a great imagination, and, like many people, he has an opinion on everything and is certain that he is always right. I will give him this: he is often right – at least 50% of the time.
My dad coached the US cross-country ski team in the 1960s, so a number of guests were former skiers whom he had coached in the Olympics or World Championships. Some of the stories were about crazy exploits on skis. One story was about having a life dramatically changed for an athlete who was about to go to war in Viet Nam, but was called by my dad to join the US Ski team. The last story of the evening, in particular, stuck in my mind and is worth sharing.
My father had taken his team to Norway to compete in the world famous Holmenkollen outside Oslo. And it was at this world-famous compound that the hosts of the event, the Norwegians, thought it would be entertaining to house the Americans next to the Russians, the former Soviet Union. The Norwegians also put these two teams at tables next to each other during meals. You see, this was the height of the Cold War, and the US and the Soviet Union were both vying to lead the world politically, economically and militarily. The two countries were highly distrustful of each other, so as you can imagine, the relationship between the athletes from the US and USSR was frigid, at best.
During the first morning of breakfast, as the story goes, all of the athletes were seated except for my dad. As the breakfast was being served, my dad snuck furtively into the dining hall with something concealed under his coat. As the last of the US athletes was being served their porridge, my dad went from seat to seat and poured something from the hidden vessel into each of his athletes' bowl. Of course, the Russians had no idea what he was giving his athletes. As you may know, athletes at the highest levels are always looking for an advantage, both physically and psychologically. As you probably have read, many top athletes have been disciplined for a variety of scandals that have included the use of banned substances. The athletes from the former Soviet Union were certainly familiar with this practice.
Nevertheless, the breakfast ended without interruption. The next morning, as the porridge was served, my dad did exactly the same thing. The Russian athletes were looking at my dad with curiosity, especially the Russian manager.
On the third morning, the Russian manager came up to my dad and asked what he was giving his athletes. My dad shrugged and continued to pour. Finally, in desperation, the Russian manager marched up to my dad with his porridge bowl in hand and held it out. My dad calmly poured some liquid into the porridge bowl.
The Russian manager solemnly walked back to his seat, sat down and took a bite. All eyes were on him. As soon as the spoon had left his mouth, his face broke into a huge grin of pleasure and delight. You see, as my dad is apt to do when he travels, he had brought maple syrup that he had made in Vermont. Immediately, all of the Russian athletes stood up with their porridge bowls and stood in line to receive some maple syrup from my dad. They continued this ritual every morning until all of the maple syrup had been consumed.
This began a strong relationship between the two teams. The Russians shared their masseuse with the American athletes who made daily visits to the Russian compound, and my dad became very close friends with the manager from the Soviet Union.
Why do I tell this story? I tell it because just like the Americans and the Russians during this ski competition, there is a way for us to get along with those who have different views from us. A liberal newscaster on Fox News named Sally Kohn is a great advocate of what she describes as emotional correctness. She claims that this is more important than political correctness, and it has allowed her to thrive in an environment where—according to her—she is opposed to 99% of the views around her.
What is emotional correctness? It is finding common ground with people who have different views from you. It is forming a connection with those with whom you may disagree on a wide variety of issues. Emotional correctness requires that we listen to opposing views and show respect and compassion for each other no matter what view we espouse or which candidate we favor.
I see examples of this in my Rhetoric of Leadership class. We can have different opinions about specific issues on a wide range of topics, but that does not mean that we are not friends and that we don't share a great deal in common. We can engage in an intellectual level without resorting to name calling or hard feelings. We do not gloat, and we make sure that all voices are heard and that everyone at the table feels safe. Even when discussions get a bit heated, when we leave class, we wish each other well and thank each other for engaging.
Last summer I met Axel Neubohn who is married to the most recent recipient of our Distinguished Alumni Award. He recommended that if you get discouraged with what is going on in the world, start small. Improve relationships in your family, your school, your own community, and work from there. What, in fact, are the issues that you care about? How do you make this community stronger? We see examples of people helping each other every day because we are a community that cares about each other and supports one other, regardless of our differences—even when we disagree. From there, look to your hometowns, sports clubs, and areas where you do community service. Are there groups in those areas that are under-represented or disenfranchised? If so, what can you do for them?
If you think about that right now, for just a moment, I am certain that we can find much more that we share in common that brings us together than what separates us. If you do not believe me, wait for the closing night of Macbeth, or the Mennen Cup Finals, and you will see a community joined by affection and support—a community that comes together and works together for a greater cause. This is worth striving for and can be achieved by every person in this room. There is no greater desire that human beings have than to belong. I hope that we all feel as though we belong. Call it family loyalty, school spirit, pride in your town or patriotism. Call it whatever you like, but hold on to this sense of belonging, and collectively we will achieve whatever we set out to do.